Psyche under Stress:

Dreams of Israelis and Palestinians in a Time of War

                                        Tamar Kron  and Tamar Halfon

Presented at the  3rd European Congress of Analytical Psychology, August 2015, Trieste, Encounters, Traditions, Developments: Analysis at the Cultural Crossroads.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has existed for over a century. Through the years, outbursts of violence between the two nations have forced them to deal with fear, hatred, injury and death. Each side has its own narrative of the historical events, emphasizing its own sufferings and losses and casting the blame on the enemy. The most recent war between Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza, the so-called Operation Protective Edge, is yet another bloody chapter in the history of the conflict. Hamas, in addition to barraging southern Israel with rockets, employed long range missiles and a network of tunnels to attack army outposts and civilian areas. The IDF carried out aerial bombardments in Gaza for over fifty days, killing and wounding hundreds of inhabitants and destroying many homes. The continuing attacks on Israel resulted in death and destruction and traumatized the entire population.

Casualties of violent war are victims of ethnic and national conflict that differentiates them from victims of individual trauma. Ethnic and national conflicts often result in what the Jungian analyst Joseph Henderson called the cultural complex. Tom Singer has developed, researched and written about the cultural complex since 2004. According to Singer and his associates

Large scale social complexes form in the layer of the cultural unconscious of groups and become cultural complexes. …another level of complexes exists within the psyche of the group and within the individual at the group level of their psyche. We call these group complexes 'cultural complexes', and they, too, can be defined as emotionally charged aggregates of ideas and images that tend to cluster around an archetypal core and are shared by individuals within an identified collective (Singer & Kaplinsky, 2010).


And further,

Cultural complexes can have long memories and very powerful emotions embedded in them. They acquire a strong sense of history with the passage of time from one generation to the next and over multiple generations. They enshrine and encrust themselves in the consciousness and unconscious of groups of people and the individual psyches of members of groups. Simultaneously they intertwine themselves with the cultural complexes of other groups of peoples (ibid).

In his paper from 2014, "Psyche and Society," Singer writes:

Cultural complexes are every bit as real, every bit as formative, every bit as ubiquitous, and every bit as powerful in their emotional and behavioral impact on individuals and groups as are personal complexes. Indeed, cultural complexes may present the most difficult and resistant psychological challenge we face in our individual and collective life today (Singer, 2014).

There is undoubtedly a powerful cultural complex at work in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict involving traumatic reactions to national struggle and war. On the Israeli side, the cultural complex resulting from a long history of persecution, pogroms and in the 20th century, the Holocaust, activates powerful defense mechanisms against a perceived threat of annihilation. Although little has been written specifically about the Palestinian cultural complex, it is a mirror image, that is, a parallel Palestinian complex that views Israel's War of Independence in 1948, shortly after the Holocaust, as its own national catastrophe, called the Nakba.

The paper presented here is a study of the recent war between Israel and Hamas as reflected in the dreams of two groups, the inhabitants of southern Israel and Palestinians on the west bank. Unfortunately, for our study we were denied access to the dreams of the Gazans which would have afforded us a far broader scope. However, this is the first study of its kind based on the dreams of Israeli and Palestinian adults in a time of war.

Recent studies regarding the dreams of people who live in situations of continuous stress show that the content and characteristics of traumatic dreams are determined by a number of variables, each related to the trauma itself and to the participative experience. Generally speaking, the dreams of people who have experienced stress and trauma are concrete rather than symbolic, and include more fragmentary narratives than the dreams of people who have not experienced trauma.

Ina seminar that Jung delivered in 1938 exploring the dreams of individuals suffering from “Shell Shock”– the diagnosis of psychologically affected returning soldiers that preceded the modern diagnosis of PTSD, he explains how recurring dreams after war trauma indicate an absolute shift in the psychic system. According to Jung they are a singular exception to the way dreams typically process and digest material from life. They are "completely identical repetitions of reality. That is proof of the traumatic effect. The shock can no longer be psychified."

Jung continues to elucidate the way in which some traumatic experiences must be altered slowly into symbols, allowing the shock to be metabolized and integrated into the individual’s psyche.

As he writes:

The attempt to transform a shock into a psychical situation that may gradually be mastered can also succeed toward the end of a treatment, however, as I have observed myself in a series of dreams of an English officer. In this man’s dreams, the explosion of the grenade changed into lions and other dangers that he was then able to tackle. The shock was, so to speak, absorbed. In this way, the dreamer was able to master the effect of the shock as a psychical experience (Jung, 2010).

Interestingly enough, Ernest Hartmann, a non-Jungian and a leading contemporary theorist and researcher of traumatic dreams, offers a detailed explanatory description of the adaptive function of dreaming. According to Hartmann (2008), dreaming is at one end of a continuum of mental functioning, where connection-making, guided by the dreamer's emotions is "weaving in" material – in other words, connecting stressful experiences and emotions with existing memory.

Our study looks at the essential themes and the frequency of their appearance in the dreams of Israelis and Moslem inhabitants of the West Bank. We have likewise assessed these dreams in terms of my own system of trauma indicators. In a previous study (Kron et al. 2015) my students and I collected over 500 dreams from residents of the town of Sderot and the kibbutzim and agricultural villages in the surrounding area on the border with Gaza, which have been suffering rockets attacks for more than 10 years. The participants in the study recorded their dreams and associations in a dream journal over a period of four weeks. The dreams collected for this study followed a stormy period of rocket attacks. In analyzing the dreams, we looked for recurrent "central themes" which could be related to the constant stress. The percentage of occurrences per theme out of the total number of dreams was calculated. Starting with a long initial list, 11 themes were eventually selected and designated as trauma-indicators. The same indicators were used in the present study.

In the present study participants included 38 Palestinian women and 25 Palestinian men, as well as children, living in villages and towns in the West Bank and 18 Israeli women and 10 Israeli men, residents of the Sderot area near the Gaza border. The disproportionately low number of Israeli subjects may have been due to the difficulty of their participation in the midst of the rocket attacks. All participants in the research were recruited by the chain-referral or "snowball" sampling process. All participants received a written explanation of the research, in Hebrew, Arabic and English. A total of 141 dreams were collected, 109 from Palestinians and 32 from Israelis. The collected dreams of Palestinians, written in Arabic or English, were translated into Hebrew by a bilingual translator.

In the first stage of the research, where the dreams were given an open reading, themes were selected if they recurred in the dreams of at least four subjects, although each dream might consist of several different themes. In the second stage, the frequency in which the theme appeared in both groups was compared as well as the frequency of the trauma indicators in both. We looked for the Trauma indicators which were found in the previous study mentioned above.

List of Trauma Indicators:

Stress situation related dreams: In this category, dreams refer to an existing situation of terror, rocket fire or physical injury resulting from an attack or accident.

Fear and anxiety: In this category dreams refer to the dreamer's fear or anxiety, or to someone else's experience of fear, panic or terror in the dream.

Helplessness and loss of control: In this category an experience of loss of control and/or a feeling of helplessness was reported by the dreamer.

No escape: In this category the dreamer's attempt to flee a dangerous situation fails to bring about the desired results or else the dreamer encounters danger in the place of refuge to which he/she has fled.

 Active ego: In this category the dreamer is active in the dream, whether or not the activity proves useful.

Coping with the situation: In this category the dreamer attempts actively to cope with an immediate situation of danger.

Togetherness: In this category the dreamer is not alone and experiences the support of others in the dream situation.

Symbolic dream: Inthis categoryfantastic or metaphoric events occur which did not and could not occur in reality.

Masochistic dream: In this category a negative self-image and/or a negative chain of events is dreamed (Beck, 1967). The analysis utilizes the Beck scale (ibid.) for the measurement of masochism in dreams.

Shadow: In this category the dream features a human, animal or symbolic figure representing the repressed or unacceptable parts of the dreamer's personality. The shadow also refers to enemy or aggressive figures.

Personal issue (PI): In this category the dream refers to a system of thoughts and emotions around a central theme not related to the traumatic situation experienced by the dreamer but which preoccupy him/her either consciously or unconsciously.

In our interpretations we looked for trauma and cultural complex, elucidated by Islamic dream interpretation in the case of Palestinian dreamers.





(75%) 24

(12.04%) 13

Concrete traumatic dream

(15.63%) 5

(31.48%) 34

Symbolic traumatic dream

(90.63%) 29

(43.52%) 47

Total number of traumatic dreams

(71.88%) 23

(2.78%) 3

Concrete enemy

(6.25%) 2

(21.3%) 23

Symbolic enemy

(78.13%) 25

(24.08) 26

Total number of enemy

(3.13%) 1

(2.78%) 3

Non-threatening animals

(0%) 0

(6.48%) 7

Imaginary animals and creatures

(3.13%) 1

(11.11%) 12

Dangerous animals

(6.25%) 2

(16.67%) 18

Total number of animals with imaginary animals and creatures

(34.38%) 11

(1.85%) 2


(15.63%) 5

(0.93%) 1


(15.63%) 5

(0%) 0


(56.25%) 18

(2.78%) 3

Total number of soldiers, rockets and tunnels

(3.13%) 1

(18.52%) 20

Positive elements

(3.13%) 1

(20.37%) 22

Religion and magic

(68.75%) 22

(18.52%) 20


(28.13%) 9

(10.19%) 11

Threats to the home

Table no.1 :  thematic frequency in both research groups

As we see in Table 1, there is a higher percentage of traumatic dreams among Israelis than among Palestinians (as we might expect, since the West Bank was not under fire at the time of the research). The difference between the number of concrete and symbolic dreams will be dealt with later. There is a higher percentage of positive dream content among Palestinians as well as a higher percentage of themes related to symbols, imagination, religion and magic, all of which we shall discuss later on.

Table 2: Trauma indicators in both research groups



Frequency of trauma indicators

(90.63%) 29

(83.33%) 35

Stress situation related dreams

(87.5%) 28

(78.57%) 33

Fear and anxiety

(62.5%) 20

(54.76%) 23

Helplessness and loss of control

(15.63%) 5

(4.76%) 2

No escape

(43.75%) 14

(38.1%) 16

Active ego

(37.5%) 12

(35.71%) 15

Coping with the situation

(46.88%) 15

(30.95%) 13


(18.75%) 6

(71.43%) 30

Symbolic dream

(84.38%) 27

(83.33%) 35

Masochistic dream

(75%) 24

(57.14%) 24

Shadow dream

(15.63%) 5

(14.29%) 6

Personal issue

As we see in Table 2, the only significant difference between the two groups lies in the indicators of the symbolic trauma dreams where the percentage is higher in the dreams of Palestinians.

 Common themes in the dreams of the Palestinian group

Animals and imaginary creatures are a common theme in Palestinian dreams, one that never appeared in the dreams of the Israeli group. Most of the animals and creatures were described as dangerous and threatening, bearing death and destruction to the dreamer and causing the dreamer to flee or slay them. The different animals that appeared in the dreams, like mythical serpents and predatory birds, were often wild and fierce.  Some dreamers described them as monstrous, ancient beasts, half-human half-animal, endowed with super powers that made them undefeatable.

It was important for our study to examine the Islamic tradition of dream symbol interpretation. Jung's interpretation of dream symbols derives mainly from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Although little research has been done on the meaning of animals and imaginary creatures as symbols in the dreams of Palestinians, there are three main Islamic sources that can be used in their interpretation:

1. Koranic references to animals.

2. The Hadith - a collection of extra-Koranic traditions and sayings of the prophet Muhammad that constitute a major source of guidance for Moslems.

3. A famous compilation of dream interpretations by Muhammad Ibn Sirin, (born in Basra in the 8th century) who was considered one of the foremost interpreters of dreams.

Among the dangerous, non-imaginary animals with threatening characteristics in the dreams we find scorpions, cats and snakes, snakes being the most frequent. The negative image of the snake appears in Islamic sources as well as in the Bible and the New Testament.According to Ibn Sirin a snake or serpent in a dream represents jealousy, envy, perfidy, swindling, deceit and avowed enmity.

Consider this modern dream by a twenty-three year old Palestinian man from the West Bank:

"I fell into a well filled with olive oil, but the oil was boiling. While I was in the boiling oil something touched my foot. I reached my hand out and it was a talking yellow snake but I didn't understand what it was saying. I was very frightened and don't know what happened at the end of the dream because I woke up with a start."

The well the dreamer falls into contains not water but olive oil, a vital component of Arab food and agriculture. Olive oil is a feature of other dreams in the Palestinian group but never in the dreams of the Israeli group. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, olive oil is used in the anointment of kings and spiritual leaders. According to Islamic tradition, olive oil in a dream represents knowledge, wisdom, spiritual guidance, inner light, blessings and lawful earnings. Oil in a dream also represents the light of the heart and spiritual growth. But in this dream, the oil is boiling, and in it is a yellow snake who speaks to the dreamer and frightens him. Ibn Sirin explains in his dream commentary that when asnake speaks harshly to the dreamer, it means the dreamer is suffering from tyranny and oppression caused by an enemy. The olive tree is a symbol of peace in the traditions of Jews and Moslems alike, but the cultural complex overwhelms the symbolism in reality as in the dream. In reality the olive tree is an element of the conflict. Palestinians set fire to Israeli groves and extremist Jewish settlers cut down Palestinian olive trees. An olive tree also figures in the dream of a 37 year old Palestinian woman whose dreams center mainly around her shaheed brother (a Muslim martyr who dies for his faith, whereas for Israelis it means a terrorist).

"In the dream I heard someone call me from heaven, telling me to look for my shaheed brother who was killed ten years ago. I told him that my brother died long ago, and he told me to go look for him and that I would find him, that he wasn't dead, but lived and breathed. I walked behind the house and found his grave beside an olive tree. I opened the grave up and took my brother out. He was very tall. I lifted him in my arms and didn't see his face, and his heart beat in mine. And then he stood up and walked away and kissed my uncle's hand and embraced him and kissed my father's hand and embraced him, and then he disappeared".

The ambivalent significance of cats:

Ibn Sirin: The cat is one of the most controversial figures in dreams. Some regard it as a servant and guardian, others as a thief within the home (an insider). It refers to all hangers-on who act as protectors but who also pilfer, steal, or harm one and are, in fact, of no use. To dream of killing or slaughtering a cat means that one will overpower an enemy or rival.

Here then is the dream of a 37 year old woman which features a cat:

"I saw a big cat standing outside the door of my house and she attacked me, she wanted to get into my house. I beat her and she fell down the stairs and died".

This woman had a similar dream about a snake.

"I saw a snake in my dream and it attacked me so I killed it, I beat its head till it died".

Do the cat and the snake in her two dreams represent a symbolic enemy?

Imaginary animals and creatures in the dreams of Palestinians

The imaginary animals and creatures in the dreams of Palestinians included predatory birds, ghosts, chimeras, half-human and half-animal, a gigantic monster, and a disembodied female figure. Here are two dreams that feature predatory birds.

The dream of a 27 year old man:

"I dreamed I was in an electric car and I drove it away from town out near the desert. And suddenly there was thunder and lightning and rain fell. The roads filled with water. I noticed that the wheels were on fire and made a lot of noise. I stopped the car and got out and a big bird swooped down from the sky and snatched up the car and I stood there feeling sad."

The dream of a 32 year old woman.

"I dreamed there was an earthquake that destroyed the city. Water flooded the roads and damaged them. Mice were nibbling the fingers of little children and people were walking on broken glass. And then different kinds of birds flew by and snatched up the women till none were left. And then the sun rose, there was no more water on the roads and ants started crawling out of the ground."

A number of traumatic images appear in these dreams, dreamt during or just after the last Gaza war. Since as we know West Bank Palestinians identified closely with the Gazans and saw daily scenes of destruction on television, we may assume that their dreams reflect the bombing and shelling taking place there, not very far away. The earthquake, water flooding the roads, burning tires, predatory mice, ants that crawl out of the ground and birds that snatch a car and carry off women, all evoke the horrors of war.  The immediate association with these predatory birds might be enemy planes.

We see in Ibn Sirin's interpretations, "an unknown bird in a dream represents the angel of death." And likewise, "Seeing a colony of ants entering a city in a dream means that an army will occupy that city."

Even when the animals in the dream are not dangerous per se, the dream situation itself is frightening. For example, a 10 year old boy dreams about a horse.

"I dreamed I was riding a horse, galloping far away. After a while I came to a place with a stream. I got off the horse and the horse drank a lot of water and then I came closer to drink some but the water was dirty. The stream wasn't clear enough to see into so I just gave up. But I wanted to drink, and when I came closer there was no water in the stream, only blood. I didn't drink it and I woke up feeling afraid."

At the beginning of the dream, the boy is galloping, which may reflect his awareness of growing into manhood. But then all of a sudden the dream becomes morbid and frightening as the water in the stream turns against the boy and mysteriously changes into blood.

Islamic sources say, "If one sees a valley filled with blood in a dream, it means that he may be killed in that locality. If the water in the stream is murky, or salty, or runs over of its banks, it represents a coming calamity that will cause mass sufferings."

With this in mind, let us turn to the dream of a 25 year old Israeli man from Sderot – the town near the border of Gaza, that has been suffering many rocket attacks- in which a river of blood appears symbolically but is immediately concretized.

"I dreamed last night that there was a river of blood flowing by my house, the blood of Arab terrorists and I woke up happy that they would finally stop firing rockets at us and terrorism would stop and there would be peace in the world."

The river of blood is reminiscent of the first plague in the biblical story when the Nile turned to blood. It is conceivable that the Jewish cultural complex became activated during the war, bringing with it connotations of the traumas the Jewish people endured in the days of slavery under the Egyptians.

It is interesting to note that in the dream of the ten-year-old Palestinian boy the river of blood has no specific concrete reference or any reference to a particular enemy whereas the man from Sderot ascribes the blood in the river to a concrete enemy. Evident here is the traumatic concrete element mentioned earlier in relation to the dreams of the Israeli residents of Sderot and the surrounding area which isconspicuously absent from the dreams of the Palestinians.

Common themes in the dreams of the Israeli group

In many of the traumatic concrete dreams within the Israeli group, men see themselves as either fighting or wounded and in flight while women dreamers express concern for others.

A 37 year old Israeli man dreams:

"There's an alert and I see a rocket, a ball of fire; I run and it follows me wherever I go. It flies one way and then makes a U-turn in my direction. It all happens in a forest with trees everywhere, very frightening, and I'm sure I'm about to die, I feel trapped and there's no one there to rescue me. I'm all alone, feeling completely helpless."

One of the main threats to the inhabitants of the region are the tunnels dug by Hamas and through which they crossed the border in order to kidnap Israelis and commit acts of terror. Here is the dream of a 19 year old soldier from Sderot in which these tunnels appear. 

"In my dream a terrorist steals through a tunnel and wounds and kills many people. I take my gun and set off to hunt for the terrorist. In the end it turns out that he crawled back into the hole and returned to Gaza."

This description of terrorists crawling out of the earth in this and other dreams reflects the primitive fear of archetypal evil. The terrorist in this dream is pictured as a snake returning to its hole. Here we see the snake as having a rather vivid and concrete referent, whereas in the dreams of the Palestinians, the snake merely symbolizes an archetypal foe.

In the dreams just recounted we see instances of helpless flight from danger and of fighting the enemy. In the women's dreams there is a different response to danger:

Here is the dream of a 28 year old woman:

"I'm sleeping with the children in the bomb shelter when suddenly I hear gunfire coming from nearby and I don't know what to do. Will the bomb shelter protect us from close range fire? I lock the shelter door and lie down with the children under the window. I hear gunfire.  My neighbors across the way don't have a shelter and in my mind's eye I see the family members there being killed one after another. What to do? Jump out the window with the children, straight into the fire, or stay where I am and be captured by murderers? I woke up in utter horror."

Here is the dream of a 21 year old woman:

"I dreamed about friends who were fighting in Gaza, that one of them had been wounded and was evacuated by the medics. In my dream I kept calling his cell phone but he didn't answer. I woke up from the dream and sent him a text message saying I loved him and that he should take care of himself and his troops. Unfortunately one part of the dream came true. A friend of his was killed."

The connection between the death of the soldier in reality and the content of the woman's dream demonstrates how vividly traumatic dreams are experienced. The belief that the dream is prophetic expresses the woman's anxiety in the face of the unknown and her need to gain control, no matter how tragic the foreboding.


In our analysis of trauma indicators we find that in both groups of dreamers, Israelis and Palestinians, over 75% of the dreams fit the categories of situational stress, fear, anxiety and masochism. The most statistically significant difference we found among them was a preponderance of symbolic dreams in the Palestinian group as opposed to a preponderance of concrete traumatic dreams in the Israeli group. As we understand it, the significant difference between the two groups is due to the proximity of the Israeli subjects to the war zone in Gaza where they were under constant bombardment and threat of terrorism while the effects of the war on the West Bank where the Palestinian dreamers live were experienced indirectly.

Another finding apparently related to this difference is that specific concrete dream images in the Israeli group and symbolic dream images in the Palestinian group tend to recur many times. In the dreams of the Israelis the recurring images were mostly real and concrete: soldiers, rockets, terrorists and tunnels. Some of these dreamers expressed a fear that their nightmares would come true. These comments evince their clear belief in prophetic dreams. A blurring of the boundaries between dream and waking reality is typical in the case of dreamers suffering from recent trauma.

In the symbolic dreams of the Palestinian group there were a number of frequently recurring images that did not appear in the dreams of the Israeli group: animals and dangerous imaginary creatures, religious and magic symbols and positive content. In the dreams of the Israeli group there were few if any dreams with religious themes or positive content (that is, happiness, comfort, security.)  Religious and magic symbols as such are beyond the scope of this paper, due to our limited time frame, except where these are related to trauma. Here we should note our finding that dreams with religious themes overlap with positive content.

There may be several reasons other than geographical proximity to the war zone for the variance in themes, due to various cultural, religious and socioeconomic differences. Researchers of dreams in different cultures have found that dream characteristics vary in accordance with tradition and religious and social ethos. Another difference lies in the dreamers' topographic environment. Thus, West Bank Palestinians tend to live in agrarian settings where dangerous animals are often part of daily life beyond any symbolic meaning they may possess. Likewise, it would be erroneous to understand olive trees and olive oil on a purely symbolic level since they play such a vital role in their reality.

In both groups, however, archetypal symbols of evil like snakes and terrorists emerge from underground, in keeping with the Jungian approach to the collective unconscious. Another parallel is the appearance of archetypal evil swooping down from the sky in the form of predatory birds and rockets. The enemy in both groups is dehumanized and without individual identity, a projection of the shadow which threatens to destroy the collective.

Questions for Discussion:

1. Are the differences between the dreams of the two groups related solely to differences in their experiences of trauma? 

2. Do these differences reflect the "cultural unconscious" (Henderson, 1990) of Jewish Israelis and Muslim Palestinians?

3. In what way do the cultural complexes (Singer and Kimbles, 2004) of the two groups reinforce each other?


Jung, C.G.  (2010 Paperback edition) Children dreams: Notes from the seminar given in 1936-1940. Ed. Meyer-Grass M. & Jung L. Princeton University Press.

Hartmann E.  (2008). The nature and function of dreaming. In:  The New Science of Dreaming Vol. 3. (Praeger Perspectives)1st Edition, Ed. Deirdre Barrett  & Patrick McNamara

Kron, T., Hareven, O. & Goldzweig, G. (2015) Dream Dome: Do dreams shield the psyche in times of continuous stress?  Dreaming, Vol 25(2), Jun 2015, 160-172

Singer, T. &  Kaplinsky, C. (2010) Cultural Complexes in Analysis.

In:  Jungian Psychoanalysis: Working in the Spirit of C.G. Jung, edited by Murray Stein, pp. 22-37. Open Court Publishing Company, Chicago.

Singer, T. (2014) Psyche and Society: Some personal reflections on the development of the cultural complex theory. Journal of Jungian Scholarly Studies. Vol. 9 (1)